Islamic liberalism and its role in modern-day Islam became the subject of a timely and provocative debate organized recently by the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization. The event was hosted by Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In this fascinating debate, which can be viewed here, Mustafa Akyol passionately argued for Islamic liberalism, while Shadi Hamid was more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in that it is essentially resistant to liberalism.
The essence of Hamid’s argument was that illiberalism is a viable model for Muslim societies. He was clearly pessimistic about the prospect that liberal ideas will prevail in the Muslim world in the future, saying: “We should not hitch our wagon to that possibility.” However, Hamid’s assertion that average Muslims reject liberal Islam is based on some erroneous assumptions that I would like to discuss, in addition to what Mustafa Akyol mentioned in his talk:
First: The simplistic heaven-hell approach
Hamid started his talk by claiming Muslims want religion to be straightforward, and that there is a risk in believing in progressive interpretation. “There is a lot at stake,” he added, “heaven and hell is what is at stake; why take a risk and go to the Day of Judgment?”
This simplistic approach to Islam is one of the fundamental tenets of Islamism, an ideology that promotes fear in the hearts and minds of its followers in order to win their loyalty. However, this approach seems to forget how, in the Quran, God instructed humankind to think, ponder, seek knowledge, and reflect. Here are some examples of Quranic verses that advocate deep thinking: “Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think.” (16:69), “so that their hearts (and minds) may thus use reason” [22:46]; “There are messages/signs indeed for people who use their reason” [2:164]; “Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect [59: 21].”
The problem with political Islamists is that they believe critical thinking is the exclusive domain of elite scholars, and is not part of the mindset of ordinary Muslims. This assumption that ordinary Muslims’ cannot think for themselves or have the right to, makes it easier for theocrats to control the thinking of people en masse by suggesting that critical Muslims are dangerous individuals, who should be silenced either by fatwa, imprisonment, or death.
Second, the political elements of Islam
According to Hamid, the Prophet Mohamed was a politician because he was the head of a proto-state in Medina. Hamid added that some Muslims like the fact that Islam has a political element as it makes Islam more powerful and prevents it from declining as other religions are.
This interpretation is another tenet of Islamism that propagates Islam as the last “uncompromising” religion. Islamists see politics as the guardian of the faith, which in their view, is incapable of facing the challenges of globalization and modernity alone.
This concept clearly reflects the depth of insecurity among Islamists, rather than the ideals for which the Prophet stood within his community in Medina.
In fact, the history of Islam proves just how inaccurate that argument is. Politics has never protected Islam; instead, it has created instability and led to bloodshed on numerous occasions, from the murder of Caliph Osman and then Caliph Ali to the great divide between Sunni and Shia. Those tragic events in the early days of Islam were not the result of colonialism or infidels, but were the outcome of the politics of greed that failed to protect the faith from division and infighting. Periods of Islamic renaissance were notably prominent during political stability, which enabled the faith and spirit to produce the best of Muslim art, literature, and science.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that modernity has not eradicated other faiths, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which are all still alive, despite numerous challenges.
Third, do we have liberalism in the Middle East?
In his talk, Hamid saw no problem with illiberal democracies, and explained that illiberalism could be expressed peacefully. He asserted that democracy should be established first, adding that there were liberals in the Middle East, but no liberalism.
Hamid conveniently ignored the fact that attempts have been made to systematically assassinate liberalism in the Muslim world. Liberal Muslim thinker Farag Fouda was murdered in cold blood by an Islamist. Another Egyptian Muslim scholar, Nasr Abu-Zayd, was declared an apostate for challenging mainstream Muslim views on the Quran, and was effectively forced into exile with his wife. Nobel Laureate Nagib Mahfouz was also attacked and nearly killed, again by an Islamist. These examples are just from Egypt; other Muslim countries have similar stories.
Fourth, Hamid’s assertion that the biggest problem in the Middle East is secular authoritarian regimes, not theocracy
While Hamid focused on the past 100 years, he conveniently forgot that events that happened in the last century, including secular autocracies, were not just a response to colonialism, but to decades of stagnation that plagued the theocratic Muslim world before colonialism. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he did not find the flourishing civilization of Baghdad and Cordoba, but a stagnated backward society that for many complex internal reasons the French leader and his alien army regarded as irrelevant.
In another words, the failure of Islamic theocracies led to the current struggle of modernity, and not the opposite. What followed in the 20th century was an attempt by Muslims such as Nasser and Ataturk to provide answers to the challenge of modernity, while preventing a resurgence of medieval theocracies. The secularist autocrats have indeed failed due to many complex reasons beyond the scope of this piece, but their diagnosis that theocracies have failed to cope with modernity, and hence are not ideal for modern Muslim societies, is fundamentally true. Hamid also ignored the elephant in the room, the Islamic republic of Iran, which is a glaring example of how resurrecting theocracy is not the right antidote to secular autocracy.
Muslims in Hamid’s views are insecure, incapable of critical thinking, paralyzed by fear of hell, and need strong political leaders to protect their faith from outside challenges. Those views are not just condescending and wrong, but are dangerous too. Infantilizing Muslims will never produce strong, healthy Muslim societies. Perhaps Shadi Hamid should speak to regime opponents in Iran or purged public servants in Turkey before he extols the virtues of illiberal democracy to the Muslim world.
This piece was included in Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Steven Cook’s blog weekend reading